Toronto
3 min

Fleeting gays

TVOntario recently aired General Idea: Art, AIDS and the Fin de Siècle which was nice of them because I spent much of festival season, last spring, telling people not to bother seeing the arty gay docs at the theatre because they were sure to migrate to Newsworld or TVOntario within the year and this proves me right. Thank you very much.

It’s not often you get to see docs about gay artists, which is kind of like saying there’s no sand on the beach, I know — obviously there are lots of gay artists out there — but true, nonetheless. TVOntario’s estimable and often very entertaining Masterworks series (Thursdays at 10pm) has run dozens of docs on everyone from Rothko to Van Gogh, but seldom on anyone gay, Jane Rule and Yves St Laurent being among the few exceptions.

So it was good to see the General Idea doc although also a little odd, because all three members of the conceptual art group were, of course, gay and yet the doc wasn’t very, and it seemed very aware of that fact and also prepared to underplay it.

Midway through AA Bronson, the sole surviving member of the trio (the other two members, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, died of AIDS in 1994), complained that critics had never really acknowledged their gayness. They’d tried to push the issue to the foreground, he said, even doing images of babies fucking. But nobody had risen to the bait.

Including, apparently, this doc, made years after any sort of silence might have been expected or advisable.

It documented the effect of AIDS on the group’s life and work and it allowed Bronson himself to say that they had chosen the poodle as one of their heraldic emblems in part because it was so gay. But that was about it for the gay analysis. It didn’t even delineate the ties that bound the three men together or ask if they were amorous, friendly or merely artistic. The trio was all three.

None of the talking heads who littered the piece asked how the group’s gayness had influenced their development, an omission that seems particularly odd for a group that came of age during the heyday of gay lib in the late-1960s and ’70s, and even odder for a film that had Carole Pope fronting one installation.

But that’s the way gay is these days, everywhere but somehow nowhere. During the recent fight over gay marriage in the US one rightwing pastor complained that gays were everywhere in the media. “It’s almost like it’s obligatory these days,” he told the New York Times, “to have a homo-sexual couple in every TV show or every movie.”

I know just how he feels, though perhaps for different reasons. These media homosexuals, they’re just so flighty. They’re here, they’re there, they’re nowhere. No substance. No sooner have they been identified as gay than they’re gone.These days gays in the media are kind of like the gays in Obama’s speeches. Frequently mentioned but not often described.

Maybe I’m just out of touch. A friend who came back from a Mediterranean cruise with 2,000-plus avowed homosexuals says the most popular TV shows among gay Yanks are Project Runway, Top Chef and So You Think You Can Dance? Or maybe it was Dancing with the Stars. I don’t know. I don’t watch any of them.

But the gayness of individual shows or characters is beside the point. You can point to Ellen and Rosie and Gavin and all the rest of the gay TV stars, but somehow it doesn’t add up to a cohesive whole. There’s a sense of diffusion to gay culture these days and it extends to gay lit as well.

The last recommendation I got for a gay book came from an acquaintance at a book sale who flashed me a copy of Aubrey Menen’s Fonthill, the tale of 19th-century homo William Beckford, and told me it was a good book. Closer friends seemed to have just stopped reading gay, maybe because they don’t know what to read.

You have to work to find good gay books. Stars like Edmund White and David Leavitt aside, gay writers are seldom reviewed in the mainstream press.

From what I can see the most widely reviewed gay novels of the past two years — Andre Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name, Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me, Thomas Mallon’s Fellow Travellers and Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage — have all been written, as far as I can tell, by straights, which suggests to me that the mainstream media is still not entirely comfortable with out gay men.

There’s a tolerance of gay culture, but not exactly a lot of engagement, and the more assimilated gay culture becomes — and every story about gay adoption and marriage feeds the idea that it is — the less talk there is of its differences. Gays are just like us, goes the theory, so no need to dwell on it.

It’s a nice idea and good for tolerance, but not much help with cultural development. If you’re sincerely interested in what gays have to offer, you have to do more than flash the label.